1:31 pm CST - April 29, 2008
Posted under The Scoop
By Kate Phillips, The New York Times
The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. spoke at the National Press Club in Washington on Monday. (Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times)
In three major appearances in the last four days, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. offered a full-throated historical defense of black church traditions.
But his re-emergence on the national stage has certainly served to provide more sound-bites that already have begun to haunt Senator Barack Obama on the campaign trail.
With Senator John McCain’s fresh criticisms of the pastor and Republicans painting him and Mr. Obama as extremist in commercials using snippets of sermons, Mr. Wright, longtime pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, defiantly and passionately argued that such criticisms were attacks on the black church and its faith traditions, not attacks on him.
In an appearance this morning at the National Press Club in Washington, Mr. Wright mixed biblical passages and scholarly works with sarcasm and humor in his efforts to address the nearly two months’ long barrage of questions that have dogged his church and Mr. Obama since excerpts of his sermons first began looping around on television and the Internet.
Asked why he chose to speak out now, Mr. Wright said: “On November the 5th and on January 21st, I’ll still be a pastor. As I’ve said, this is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright. It has nothing to do with Senator Obama. This is an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African- American religious tradition.”
Mr. Obama, a parishioner at Mr. Wright’s church for about 20 years, tried to tamp down the controversy in Philadelphia more than a month ago, with a major speech on race relations. In that address and since then, Mr. Obama said he disagreed with some of Mr. Wright’s remarks but would not denounce him because he had become like family.
In an interview on Fox News on Sunday, Mr. Obama said he had not talked with the reverend about his decision to embark on a public defense of his reputation.
Asked to respond to Mr. Wright’s contention that he has been the victim of a smear campaign, Mr. Obama said: “No. I think that people were legitimately offended by some of the comments that he had made in the past. The fact that he is my former pastor I think makes it a legitimate political issue. So I understand that.”
But he also said that media coverage of Mr. Wright had simplified his service in the church, and turned him into a caricature.
Our colleague Jeff Zeleny tells us that associates of Mr. Obama said privately that his campaign was furious at Mr. Wright’s decision to step forward so publicly, but that they were unable to do anything to control this. They added, however, that the pastor’s actions prove that he and Mr. Obama are not that close, otherwise why would Mr. Wright do this now?
The timing may be critical, though, for Mr. Obama, who has struggled to regain his footing (and retooled his message) after Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton trounced him in Pennsylvania where his remarks about small-town Americans may have influenced a swath of white voters to support her.
Despite Mr. Wright’s efforts to school the public and the media on theology and the black church, some of his responses this week bring the issue of race and the church’s association with divisive figures like the Rev. Louis Farrakhan into sharp relief.
Senator Clinton has already said Mr. Wright would not be her pastor, and she has pounded home the issue of Mr. Obama’s electability — given such vulnerabilities that the Republicans would seize upon in the general election.
During his remarks today, Mr. Wright chided the media for distorting his sermons and for their ignorance of biblical history and black worship traditions, joked that he had served six years in the Marines while Vice President Dick Cheney had not, and lectured his audience repeatedly about the need for reconciliation among faiths and races.
Reprising themes from the speech he gave to the NAACP in Detroit this weekend, Mr. Wright offered:
“The prophetic theology of the black church in our day is preached to set African-Americans and all other Americans free from the misconceived notion that different means deficient.
Being different does not mean one is deficient. It simply means one is different, like snowflakes, like the diversity that God loves. Black music is different from European and European music. It is not deficient. It is just different. Black worship is different from European and European-American worship. It is not deficient. It is just different. Black preaching is different from European and European-American preaching. It is not deficient. It is just different. It is not bombastic. It is not controversial. It’s different.”
Before we break off some bullet points to his responses, here’s a transcript of his full address today so that readers can appreciate the full defense Mr. Wright tried to offer.
In the question-and-answer session this morning, Mr. Wright was asked about some of the statements he’s made that were deemed incendiary and about his church’s associations with Mr. Farrakhan.
Here are a few bullet points:
Farrakhan: Mr. Wright praised Mr. Farrakhan’s ability to get 1 million people to march on the Washington Mall. Then, he added:
“He is one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century; that’s what I think about him. I said, as I said on Bill Moyers, when Louis Farrakhan speaks it’s like E.F. Hutton speaks. All black America listens. Whether they agree with him or not, they listen.
Now, I am not going to put down Louis Farrakhan any more than Mandela will put down Fidel Castro. You remember that Ted Koppel show where Ted wanted Mandela to put down Castro because Castro is our enemy, and he said, “You don’t tell me who my enemies are; you don’t tell me who my friends are.”
Louis Farrakhan is not my enemy. He did not put me in chains, he did not put me in slavery, and he didn’t make me this color.
The 9/11 Remarks:
On the excerpt of his sermon after the Sept. 11 attacks when he remarked that the “chickens were coming home to roost,” Mr. Wright first chided the questioner for not having listened to the entire sermon.
“Well, let me try to respond in a non-bombastic way. If you heard the whole sermon, first of all, you heard that I was quoting the ambassador from Iraq. That’s No. 1. But No. 2, to quote the Bible, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked, for whatsoever you sow that you also shall” — (he held his hand to his ear and the audience shouted “Reap!”)
Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you. Those are biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic divisive principles.
The Remarks About America:
The government of leaders, those — as I said to Barack Obama, my member — I’m a pastor; he’s a member. I’m not a “spiritual mentor” — hoodoo. I’m his pastor. And I said to Barack Obama last year, “If you get elected, November the 5th I’m coming after you, because you’ll be representing a government whose policies grind under people.” All right? It’s about policy, not the American people.
And if you saw the Bill Moyers show, I was talking about, although it got edited, I was — do you know, that’s biblical? God doesn’t bless everything. God condemns something. And D-E-M-N, demn, is where we get the word damn. God damns some practices.
And there is no excuse for the things that the government, not the American people, have done. That doesn’t make me not like America, or unpatriotic. So when Jesus says, not only you brood of vipers, now he’s playing the dozens because he’s talking about their mamas. To say brood means your mother is an asp, A-S-P. (Laughter.) Should we put Jesus out of the congregation?
When Jesus says, you will be brought down to hell, that’s not — that’s bombastic device of speech. Maybe we ought to take Jesus out of this Christian faith. No.
What I said about and what I think about and what — again until I can’t — until racism and slavery are confessed and asked for — we asked the Japanese to forgive us. We have never as a country — in fact, Clinton almost got in trouble because he almost apologized at Goree Island.
We have never apologized as a country. Britain has apologized to Africans. But this country’s leaders have refused to apologize. So until that apology comes, I’m not going to keep stepping on your foot and asking you, does this hurt do you forgive me for stepping on your foot, if I’m still stepping on your foot. Understand that? Capice?
On His Patriotism:
I feel that those citizens who say that have never heard my sermons, nor do they know me. They are unfair accusations taken from sound bites, and that which is looped over and over again on certain channels.
I served six years in the military. Does that make me patriotic? How many years did Cheney serve?
Now, Mr. Wright dismissed the idea that it was God’s will that Mr. Obama become president. And he joked about running for vice president. Of former President Bill Clinton’s comments that many African-Americans found offensive during the South Carolina primary, Mr. Wright said: “I don’t think anything about them. I came here to talk about the prophetic theology of the black church. I’m not talking about candidates or their positions or their feelings or what they have to say to get elected.”
We have yet to hear today from Mr. Obama on Mr. Wright’s remarks. But David Axelrod, the campaign’s chief strategist, was questioned closely this morning on MSNBC about whether the pastor’s very public speeches will harm the candidate. “How many times,” Mr. Axelrod asked, “how many times can you say, ‘I don’t agree with him, some of the things he says are outrageous, and he doesn’t speak for me?’ ”
He was also asked by Pat Buchanan, the conservative commentator, whether Mr. Wright’s decision to speak at the National Press Club, a high-profile platform, wasn’t exploitative of his relationship with Mr. Obama?
“And does that not put sort of a burden on Barack Obama, who is trying to be a unifying figure, to have to cut this guy loose in a way that he was unable to do or would not do in Philadelphia?” Mr. Buchanan asked.
“Well, he — first of all, Pat, Barack Obama is a unifying figure, always has been in our politics here in Illinois and in everything that he’s ever done. And I think people will judge him on that basis,” Mr. Axelrod said. “I’m not going to comment on Reverend Wright’s motivations or, you know, the sort of political implications of what he’s doing. We’re going to go out — I mean, the one thing that I’m going to make clear and that we’ll continue to make clear is that he does not speak for us.”